The West Oak Lane Jazz Festival is billed as a form of community development for the neighborhood it’s named for, but when three city blocks are closed down for three days mixed feelings tend to come up.
“I really do hate it, I would prefer the year go through without it,” said Michael Muhammad, who lives with his wife on one of the main blocks of the festival.
Living there for the past five years has given them front row seats to the best and the worst of the festival. His major difficulties are with parking and festival attendees using his property, plus the mess that he said typically lingers on the sidewalks after the event.
“But you gotta take it with a smile on your face because they run this area like they’re the gestapo,” he said, referring to the event organizer, the Ogontz Avenue Revitalization Corporation.
OARC is a CDC that was created by influential lawmaker State Rep. Dwight Evans. Through Evans the festival has gotten millions in direct state support. Evans considers the festival a means of economic development and positive marketing for West Oak Lane.
Muhammad says he feels neighbors were bullied into hosting the event all these years.
“You’re just going to throw a million dollar party on my lawn and don’t say nothing to me?” He complained, referring to the festival price tag last year.
Some other residential and commercial neighbors have similar complaints. A local flower shop along Ogontz Avenue has had poor experiences with the festival in the past too.
“It’s good for the neighborhood but it’s tough on our day-to-day operations,” said Paulette Beale of Paul Beale’s Flowers.
Beale said that customers have a hard time picking up orders with the crowds, and the three blocks of closed streets for four days. Delivery trucks have similar problems so her business becomes almost cut off to customers during the festival.
Some full cups
Nearby resident Jerome Dupont is on the other side of the issue.
“I go to the festival every year, it’s wonderful,” he said, sitting on a park bench in Ogontz Plaza.
Dupont says he lives only a few blocks away from the main stage so he can hear the concert from his own front porch.
“I’ve been watching the festival every year since it started, and I’ve yet to see something that I didn’t like,” he said.
Other local businesses are gearing up for the event too. Sweets by Sonya opened only a week ago along Ogontz Avenue within walking distance of the main stage, and plans to offer free samples of its usually sold out sweet potato cheesecakes along with hand-dipped ice cream, water ice and gelatos. The owner, Sonya Akines, says she hopes to present a special cake for Chaka Khan, one of the lead performers during the festival.
“I really love jazz,” said Akines, sitting in her freshly painted cafe and bakery. She plans to close the shop before the night concerts so she can check out acts like R&B singer Chrisette Michele as well.
Akines grew up in Northeast Philadelphia and says that West Oak Lane is on the rise.
“It is really changing for the better, no matter what it was before, no matter the stories people may have heard about it, you have to come here, shop here, live here to experience the change,” she said.
Akines thanks OARC for her new business. She says they helped her above and beyond her expectations, “they were so welcoming, [Dwight Evans] he’s done a lot to help small businesses grow.”
The 3rd Element Spa & Salon along Ogontz Avenue is offering specials during the festival like mini-facials and chair massages in Ogontz Plaza. On Saturday night it will hold a spoken word and poetry event with an open bar.
Andrea Roberts who works at the spa says she’s been looking forward to the event for weeks.
“I was raised on jazz,” she said. She added that if singer Jeffery Osborne stopped by the massage would be on the house.
Green Soul, a new venture by some of the same OARC backed restauranteurs responsible for Relish, which is famous in these parts, is opening to coincide with the festival.
“It’s a wonderful opportunity for business, networking and cultural events, we are really looking forward to it,” said owner Akil Collins.
Collins calls Green Soul, a reclaimed wood and bamboo revamp of an old Subway shop, a “catalyst for better eating and living” through lighter and healthier fare. Think: “Jerk Salmon” instead of fried chicken. During the festival Green Soul will be offering specials on wraps-to-go and sodas sweetened with agave syrup.
Some half full
Despite his frustrations, Michael Muhammad has enjoyed much of the music at the festival over the years. Last year he and his wife took their swing seat down into the crowded street for a concert by Al Jarreau.
“That was really cool,” he said, pointing out how close the stage was to his home. “You feel kinda special.”
Muhammad says he has seen other great acts over the years too, like Eric Burdon and War, The O’Jays and even Teena Marie.
“People came out for Teena Marie,” he emphasized, saying he met fans from well beyond Philadelphia.
This year, Muhammad said he will try to make the best of the festival as well, by hosting a BBQ with his friends on the Sunday.